The Custodian #3: Destiny Is A Game That Turns People Into Fools

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Destiny is a game that turns people into fools. Why?

I have a book recommendation for you: It’s called Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin. The story of a pious village healer in provincial Russia who goes on a quest of repentance after his beloved perishes while trying to give birth to their bastard can only be described as melancholy, weird, unsparing, and fitfully joyous in that paradoxical Christian way of people who seem to be at their most assured when everything around them is awash in tragedy. It’s remarkable.

Imagine being a member of a group, a group so devoted to a single, bafflingly impractical task that the rest of polite society can’t help but regard you as a crazed vagrant: Imagine being a fan of Destiny.

There’s a moment in the book when the hero, Arseny, comes to the town of Pskov and meets a man named Holy Fool Karp. In Orthodox Christian history, holy fools are the people whose passion for Christ has carried them far beyond the bounds of normal behavior. They are odd, eccentric, and occasionally shocking in their disdain for social norms and personal safety, and Holy Fool Karp is one such individual.

Karp, we learn, will not say a word other than his own name, and his service to the sick and impoverished is to wait in front of the town baker’s house every morning, with his hands clasped behind his back. When the baker emerges from his house carrying a tray of freshly baked bread, Karp rushes forward and snatches one of the loaves off of the tray with his mouth. He then runs through Pskov, hands still clasped behind his back, through all the ghettos and back alleys in which the city’s least fortunate townsfolk have been forced to congregate, where they know to chase him and snatch at the loaf hanging from his mouth. After he finishes his run through the city, whatever bread left in Karp’s mouth is his food for the day.

Karp’s unique brand of charity is suspect, of course, because he steals what he gives away from the baker. Laurus is a subtly comedic story that lampoons, and in many cases elucidates, the religious experience by showing how sin corrupts everything, even our good deeds. If the message isn’t clear, the other holy fool in the book, Foma, spreads his gospel by punching people.

It’s the bread in Karp’s mouth that sticks with me, though. That’s all he has for himself, and as much as he can share with his fellow paupers. The middle class citizens of Pskov regard Karp as an idiot and a nuisance for not putting all that effort into making his own life more comfortable and being a more productive member of the town. Imagine being a member of a group, a group so devoted to a single, bafflingly impractical task that the rest of polite society can’t help but regard you as a crazed, aphasia-stricken vagrant, constantly gnawing on the same meagre crust every day, running with a flock of fellow invalids too impoverished and addicted to the practice to realize how good they never had it.

Imagine being a fan of Destiny.

For a game whose successes are so easy to verify — bookoodle numbers at retail, decent critical scores, and a vibrant fanbase that just hosted its first convention — Destiny feels more like a well kept secret these days than a breakout hit. One question always follows me when I mention that I’m still playing it: Why?

Why are you still playing Destiny? It sucked. Why are you still playing Destiny? It’s old. Why are you still playing Destiny? There’s nothing left to do. Why are you still playing Destiny? The Division did it better?

Kidding, no one says this.

Why are you still playing Destiny? They said it would julienne fry potatoes, but it doesn’t julienne fry potatoes. It doesn’t even peel potatoes! Don’t you want to stop enabling developers who over-promise what their game can deliver in pursuit of hitting pre-order targets regardless of whether or not you get your money’s worth? Don’t you want a loot-based cooperative shooter that doesn’t force you to go to message boards and Youtube channels just to figure out how to level up your character? Don’t you want games that take potatoes seriously? You get the idea.

We're plugging our ears and shutting our eyes -- we still like Destiny!
We’re plugging our ears and shutting our eyes — we still like Destiny!

I get the idea too. It can be exasperating.

I used to be the guy asking those questions. I hated vanilla Destiny so much I deleted it from my hard drive once I hit the level cap.

We all know how that happened: dull loot drops, player-hostile progression systems, lifeless endgame, and a story about, I dunno, some guns and Bill Nighy’s answering machine. It simply wasn’t a good mix.

But the majority of the gaming landscape moved on.

Bungie got humble–they had to get humble–and went to work. Many of us know what happened next: The Taken King, a revamped progression system, better loot, a wider variety of game modes, and a story that straight-up killed off (or at least sidelined with extreme prejudice) its worst characters to make room for Nathan Fillion to put his feet on the table and deliver, amongst other masterful one-liners, one of the single greatest throwaway gags I’ve ever heard:

“Okay, Guardian, see what you can pull out of Rasputin. … Huh, there’s a… joke there somewhere.”

Cayde-6 is the best.

***

The people who stuck with Destiny, and those like me who came back to see what all the fuss was about, belong to a special group that knows gaming’s best open secret: Destiny fucking rules.

Do I need to repeat myself?

We know it looks weird that we’re all running together in the same old missions, chewing the same bounties over and over, hands bound away from other games by a shooter that’s over two years old now. We’re well aware of how foolish it all looks, which brings us to Destiny’s new expansion, Rise of Iron.

You won’t be shocked to hear that I love Rise of Iron. At time of publish I estimate that I’ll have put around 60 hours into it, churning through patrol missions in the Plaguelands, and completing quests in the record book to earn a full set of Iron Lord armor.

Rise of Iron is just what I wanted from a new Destiny expansion, which is new quests, new weapons, and new areas to explore. It’s simply perfect. It’s exactly what I want, but there’s a cost, which is that Rise of Iron does nothing to improve what’s there. The story gets off to a promising start, but finds itself lacking a compelling antagonist, making no effort to address broader structural issues from The Taken King that, while still a vast improvement over vanilla Destiny, could be better in their own right. If I stop to think about or describe Rise of Iron’s greatness for even just a moment, I can’t produce an apologia more compelling than that the Skinner box has been refilled with Cheez-Its instead of Chex Mix.

That bar up top is almost filled...I MUST FILL THE REST.
That bar up top is almost filled…I MUST FILL THE REST.

I really, really do hate that manner of reductive talk; the kind that (correctly) recognizes that all videogames are repetitive on some level and assumes that this is a brilliant realization in and of itself. As Penny Arcade once quipped: “But what do you think of the game?” “[I think] it’s a great way to fill bars.”

Alas, the truth is that Destiny is ALL ABOUT some bar-filling.
It has the most gorgeous, wonderful, beautiful bars that are constantly begging to be filled and refilled again and again. Destiny is so much fun to play, yet so inescapably rooted to bar-filling that it exposes just how limited our vocabulary for game discussion is, and forces me to confront what, exactly, I find valuable about playing it.

Destiny’s chief paradox, then, is that it sounds like an insulting waste of time on paper, but it’s not. When I break down the process and structure of playing and leveling up my character, I almost recoil in disgust.

Let’s use the new raid as an example (deep breathing, people): After finishing Rise of Iron’s campaign I have a Light level of 340, and I need to level up to a Light rating of 360 in order to do the raid. I have to increase the Light score of 10 individual pieces of gear so that they all average to a value of 360 or higher. Which… means that I need to run strike missions in the 320 Light range over and over until enough gear drops that my Light reaches 350.

That means that I need to move on to the “Heroic” strike missions, which are harder and have different gameplay modifiers activated. These change how I should play in order to complete them. Now I have to change my gear to fit the modifiers, which could leave me underleveled and too weak to finish the task. That’s not good, so now I have to play carefully enough and trust that the teammates I’ve matched with will cooperate and play well enough not to spoil things until enough loot drops to give me the power and flexibility I need to spec my character against the modifiers.

So, when I beat the strike bosses, I need to carefully examine the loot that they drop and swap it out or infuse it into my current gear to increase its value by 1 or 2 points. This is going to take me about half a dozen strikes to raise my total Light level by a paltry point, but there’s a catch: only certain types of gear will drop from strike bosses. Wonderful.

Destiny has the most gorgeous, wonderful, beautiful bars that are constantly begging to be filled and refilled again and again.

Because of that, when I do enough strikes to increase the Light level of my weapons and armor to 360, I have to keep doing strikes and increasing the Light level of those items to compensate for the fact that other gear I have, like my Ghost companion and my class artifact, are still stuck at 350 Light, because strike bosses don’t drop those items as rewards.

And that means I won’t be ready for the raid until I’ve done enough strikes to get my weapon and armor items in the 370 Light range, which means at an average rate of 15 minutes per strike, I’ll need an hour and a half to raise my character one full Light level.

Result?

12 hours playing the same 14 strike missions over and over just to meet the bare minimum threshold for the raid.

The game explained none of this.

To return to the bread metaphor, it really doesn’t get much more stale or much less nutritive than this.

Writing about it now, just laying out the process in words, confounds me as to how I ever let this game take up so much of my time.

I can only imagine how ridiculous this sounds to those who aren’t invested in Destiny, to the middle-class Pskovians of the gaming community. This is someone’s form of personal hell, wading through my utterances

But the thing is, despite the fact that the gameplay loop described above is completely accurate (at least until Bungie implements changes, which they have shown a refreshingly humble willingness to do), it really doesn’t capture what Destiny does that obviates such monotony, which is that it’s a really damn good shooter, and it drives the player with lore in lieu of narrative.

My preferred weapon in Destiny is a legendary scout rifle called “Treads Upon Stars.” I got it back in May, after killing the Cabal commander Valus Ta’aurc. It’s a slow-firing, semi-automatic rifle that demands careful control and aim but hits like a freight train.

When I head to the Meridian Bay on Mars to do some reconnaissance and patrol, I’m going to veer right from my landing zone and head towards a small Cabal outpost. At that location, three Cabal Legionaries and two Cabal Phalanx will emerge from the base. I will take aim at the first Cabal Phalanx and fire at his exposed right arm, which will stagger him and cause his shield to drop.

I then adjust my aim to his head and fire two shots. I know by this point after hours of use that Treads Upon Stars will jerk up and sharply to the right, but my hands are practiced enough to keep it on target. With the first Phalanx down, I will take aim at the Legionary behind him and fire another headshot, which will proc Treads Upon Stars perk “Triple-Tap,” which adds a round directly to the magazine after 3 consecutive headshots. It takes me less than 10 seconds to down all 5 soldiers without needing to reload. I move on to the next outpost, where a pitched battle between the Cabal and the Vex needs my attention.

Treads Upon Stars will claim dozens of more kills on the trip. The Cabal soldiers who fall under its sights will die as outcasts of their own empire, whose law dictates that soldiers are exiled unless they can return victorious from their latest campaign.

Ain't she gorgeous?
Ain’t she gorgeous?

The Vex that were fighting the Cabal may not have understood what, exactly, they were fighting over, given that the Vex travel through time, appearing in one moment to address a new threat to their cyborg hive-mind, and vanishing in the next.

Millions of miles away, on the stormy coastlines of a terraformed Venus, warriors of the Fallen are fighting over caches of Ether, which they need to grow and survive, the foundation of a caste-system that dictates social status based upon how much nourishment a given soldier is able to claim for himself.

Dregs are fighting to become Vandals, Vandals are fighting to become Captains, and Captains are fighting to usurp Lords. The outcome of their conflict will dictate the power balance of the Fallen Houses, and affect the Fallen’s military presence on Earth, the Moon, and Venus.

I feel like I know the world even when it isn’t telling me something interesting.

Meanwhile, in the rings of Saturn, a Hive dreadnought carrying the Taken King Oryx lists helplessly, scuttled by a triumphant but costly battle against the queen of the Awoken. As Oryx plots his next move aboard the ship, a Cabal centurion has boarded and ordered his soldiers to claim everything they can on the defeated warship.

Back on Earth, under the protective gaze of the Traveler, a pair of Guardians passes the time by kicking a ball back and forth at each other, enjoying a carefree moment of play before taking to the stars to find their next mission.

All of this takes place as I reload Treads Upon Stars and consider my next move.

The game doesn’t explain any of this either.

But I know it’s happening.

***

In looking at my play statistics for this column, I learned that I’ve spent 268 hours playing Destiny (to put that in perspective, it’s a big investment from me if I spend even 20 hours with a game).

I’ve scored 71,468 kills in PVE and 2,262 kills in the Crucible. I’ve spent over four days of my life playing strikes. My three characters have combined for well over a hundred miles of travel on foot, and accounted for 22,271 precision kills (that means, adjusted for grenade, melee, and super kills, more than a third of my kills are headshots, a testament to how well-designed Destiny’s mechanics are more than my own skill level). The point being that the raw accrual of such data tells a story that is about more than just bar-filling. Concluding that such a high level of investment is the result of mere hook-in-mouth gameplay mechanics is folly.

It’s valid to say that Destiny isn’t good at telling stories, the plots of its various campaigns are gossamer thin at best, but it is good at tilling the earth of its own lore to let the players understand its history and develop a coherent, consistent understanding of its various planets, legends, and cultures. I love playing Destiny because every minute spent with it, every grimoire card, and every throwaway line of dialogue reveals a new detail about the game or the relationship between characters, and even when Bungie fails to bring those things together in a satisfying story moment, they still serve as the ingredients my imagination needs to stay nourished.

I feel like I know the world even when it isn’t telling me something interesting.

The gap between bar-filling and the lack of good, explicit storytelling is where Destiny thrives, because in spite of those shortcomings it gives players the tools that they need to understand their place in the universe amidst the history and culture of the galaxy.

This is how Destiny turns people into fools; this is why the Karps of its world need only a mouthful to satisfy themselves; this is why running strike missions for hours on end doesn’t feel tedious; this is why Destiny’s community is known for its friendliness as much as its passion.

It’s impossible to observe Destiny’s constituent parts from the outside and conclude that It Is Good™.

Though it isn’t the first game to make up for lackluster storytelling with strong world-building, I think it’s the most attractive, because the more I play the game, the more I meet other players like myself who are slowly, passively absorbing all the same details I am, and when we play together there is a shared knowledge of culture, skills, and weaponry for us to discuss.
I’m not the only Solar Titan who wields Treads Upon Stars, and I’m not the only one who killed Valus Ta’aurc to get it, but the consistency of the experience between me and other guardians only contributes to the ownership of the adventure. It’s like meeting someone who was raised on the same bedtime fairytales as a child.

This is an underrated quality in games as a whole. Too often I focus on what a game immediately gives me, what its play mechanics are, what story it tells, and judge it from there.

But it takes real skill and real dedication to make a fictional world that inspires people to think about it outside of what’s directly in front of them.

While it’s fair to criticize Destiny for its narrative shortfalls, it has to be commended for just how well it pulls this off. I won’t go so far as to say that Destiny doesn’t need a well-realized narrative campaign, but I don’t think you could ask for a stronger fictional foundation on which to build a story.

Bungie’s struggles with technology and the growing pains of starting a new franchise have been well-documented. It feels like we’ve been saying this since it was first announced, but here’s hoping that wherever Destiny goes from here is just as evocative and inspiring in being as it is in spirit.

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